DJ Taylor: America gave us Wallis Simpson – but spare us President Mooseburger

The WikiLeaks disclosures have shown us Washington realpolitik stripped bare. But just imagine how much worse an isolationist US would be.
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It was difficult to get very worked up about this week's WikiLeaks disclosures. As for the comments on aspiring international statesmen, any American ambassador worth his invite to the Court of St James was surely going to ask the Governor of the Bank of England for his opinion of Her Majesty's loyal opposition, and Mervyn King can hardly be blamed for saying what he thought.

It was the same with the news that the US chargé d'affaires in Rome considered Silvio Berlusconi to be "reckless, vain and ineffective as a leader" – a conclusion that one or two students of the European scene might think spot-on – or that Nicolas Sarkozy was, ahem, "thin-skinned".

Naturally, behind the character profiles lay the deeper principle of US realpolitik: the unwritten law which insists that American diplomats can do practically anything they like if it can be shown to advance their country's interests. Again, one doesn't have to be a modern Bismarck to concede that if the United States is expected to play the role of world policeman, then it is going to have to reach certain judgements that its international allies would prefer not to hear about, especially when they happen to be true. Vladimir Putin may well be outraged to find himself described as presiding over a mafia state, but curiously this is how it often looks to the malign and doubtless ill-informed onlookers beyond the Dnieper river.

Meanwhile, the WikiLeaks debacle has reanimated that elemental debate about America's place on the world stage. Here in the UK what might be called Anglo-American attitudes are profoundly confused. It is a fact, for example, that most of the hostility to the US comes from relatively small minorities, and such antagonism as exists is nearly always tempered by an awareness of the stranglehold exercised by American mass culture and an acknowledgement of the historical realities of the past half-century.

My father worshipped America for, on the one hand, "defending us" and, on the other, for peopling the cultural landscapes of his boyhood with Bing Crosby, James Cagney and Glenn Miller. To go back to the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and her demands for biometric data on the world leaders she deals with, yes, the Americans are frightful, and, yes, they do things that would have most Western liberals quaking in their galoshes with horror. But yet there may come a time when, instead of an internationalist crusader, we get isolationist President Mooseburger from out of the Idaho potato fields, who doesn't see why America should act as law-enforcement officer to the world and wants the US border to stop at Rhode Island. And what is the West going to do about that?


One of the most tedious things about this week's bad weather has undoubtedly been the media's reporting of it. Certainly, conditions in Scotland, northern England and the southern Home Counties have been hugely inconvenient. Certainly, commuters, air-travellers and lorry drivers in these regions have had a disagreeable time. But as well as being determinedly sensationalist, the BBC's coverage of how the nation "ground to a halt" was horribly repetitive. Every day last week, for example, brought a lunch-time news feature starring an excitable man, or woman, knee deep in a field of snow who began by remarking that on the face of it Terrington-on-the-Wold was a picture-postcard village caught in winter's icy grip, before going on to interview some doughty ancient who maintained that the weather was the worst he had seen in his lifetime, offering dire and usually exaggerated prognoses of the amount of snow that was booked to fall in the next 24 hours, and then abruptly cutting to pictures of children on sledges and a reminder that some of us were actually having a whole lot of fun.

In areas less directly affected by the snow, the sensationalising tendency grew even worse. BBC East, for instance, positively fell over itself to place the worst possible slant on a not very alarming situation. Thus on Tuesday night we learned that some drivers had been stuck on the A11 and that several schoolteachers in a remote village had been forced to walk a whole three miles home across the tundra. Here in Norwich, the roads have been kept open, the school gates are mostly unlocked, and the morning papers have continued to arrive at 7.30 on the dot, but no, the BBC will go on pretending that we are in the middle of the climatic equivalent of World War III.


Almost as unsurprising as the revelation that Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah once urged the US to "cut the head off the snake" before Tehran acquired a nuclear weapon was the news that tickets for the 2010 Boring Conference have sold out. The event, advertised as the first of its kind, and taking place in London's Dominion Theatre on 11 December, aims to "push back the boundaries of human knowledge of boring things". According to the organiser, the DVD distribution manager James Ward, delegates are expressing great excitement at the prospect of a lecture on "sneezing and mortality" delivered by a man who has logged every sneeze he has produced since July 2007.

While the conference programme has not yet been made available, there seems every chance that Mr Ward and his associates may get round to discussing one of boredom's most fascinating aspects – the psychology of the bore. Contrary to received opinion, most bores are figures of huge interest, rather than being actively boring, and their fascination lies in their almost complete lack of self-awareness. Anxious to tell you about the years they spent farming on Lewis or the happy afternoons spent converting their loft, such people would never stop to consider that this was information you didn't want to acquire. Neither does the condition of being a bore proceed out of sheer, untrammelled egotism: it is far more likely to stem from a wholly disinterested urge to educate, instruct and enlighten. The bore, in fact, is not an island but an archipelago, desperate for the people on the landmass to come and join him, sadly bewildered when the invitation is declined.

Then, of course, there is the limitless entertainment to be got from seeing how much rope a bore will need to hang himself. "So, Jeremy, tell us more about loss adjusting." "Getting all those tax return in on time must be jolly difficult, Nigel." The true bore never realises that these questions are not seriously meant. Mr Ward and his friends are on to something here, and the record of their conference proceedings should be worth the wait.


Cultural talisman of the week turned out to be the Duchess of Windsor. Barely had the second instalment of William Boyd's Any Human Heart come to a close on Channel 4, in which she was played with terrific attack by Gillian Anderson, than the Sotheby's sale of her jewellery kicked into gear, accompanied by updates on the film currently being made about her by Madonna, starring the wonderful Andrea Riseborough. Granted, mainstream mid-Atlantic culture often presses unlikely looking heroines to its breast, but what is it about the Duchess's enduring appeal? No biographer has ever managed to portray her as anything more than a gold-digging adventuress.

If one wanted a symbol of her calamitous influence, it could be found in a photo of the Duke of Windsor, which Philip Ziegler reproduces in his authorised biography. It was taken by the Duchess on a very hot day so that, although out of the picture, her shadow strays ominously over its bottom-most half. In purely historical terms she was the finest exponent of a rather familiar early 20th-century phenomenon: the upwardly mobile American girl who lights out for England in search of every glittering prize worth the snatching. These days, of course, most of the real action lies elsewhere. A modern-day Wallis Simpson would probably have a much better time of it back home in Baltimore.


England's failure to be selected as hosts for the 2018 World Cup stirred an odd kind of double-think: relief that the cankerous apple-barrel that is the current English footballing establishment would not be cruelly exposed to daylight, followed by annoyance that we were being done out of our birthright by an organisation not exactly known for such democratic prerequisites as accountability, transparency or resistance to corruption. If I were one of the Premier League's strategists, I should be sitting down with my opposite numbers in Germany and Spain and the kind people at the satellite sports channels to discuss the possibility of an alternative World Cup designed to cut the ground from under the autocratic Mr Blatter's feet. UDI has worked in cricket and boxing. There is no reason why it shouldn't work in football. If, as Thursday's events would seem to suggest, Fifa is incapable of reforming itself, then surely the best move would be to sidestep it altogether?